The Second Sunday after Christmas – 3 January 2021

and

Epiphany – 6 January 2021

Isaiah 60: 1-6

 

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
   and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
   and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
   and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
   and kings to the brightness of your dawn.


Lift up your eyes and look around;
   they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
   and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
   your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
   the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
   the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
   all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
   and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Ephesians 3: 1-12

 

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for* Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

Matthew 2: 1-12

 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Collect

O God, who by the leading of a star

manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:

mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith,

may at last behold your glory face to face;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.

Sermon

 

Seeking and being sought

 

I have mislaid my glasses.  I ask my long suffering wife if she has seen them.  "Where did you last have them?" comes the response.  Tried that, no luck.  "Right there, under your nose!"

The problem, and there may be others, is that one looks for something with an expectation in mind.  The brain has evolved to play down the predictable and routine so as to be much more alert to novelty or risk; things we bring into consciousness. We are programmed to subconsciously dismiss the obvious.  Well that's my excuse.

The ethereal story of the Magi, unique to Matthew's gospel[1], is one where expectation is denied.  Epiphany, like a "Eureka" moment, is when we are aware of something newly understood or revealed. It breaks the bounds of expectation.  By giving the wise men the title "Magi",  Matthew indicates that they are Zoroastrians, likely from Persia (Iran), highly academic and probably priests.   They have developed an hypothesis and need to put it to the test[2].  It was perfectly reasonable within their terms of reference to seek a newly born and special Judean prince in Herod the Great's palace.  One can imagine the awkward embarrassment of raising the subject only to realise that nobody knows anything about it, and stir up a hornet's nest of intrigue over the old king's succession. Violence against potential contenders is an element of the story that is all too plausible given that depressed and paranoid Herod assassinated one of his own sons and a former wife. 

The epiphany moment comes after what had been anticipated collapses before the deeper reality.  The evidence that these were truly wise men is that they had the commitment to go and look where others might not.  Far from being dismayed by the dead end of Herod's palace, they reformulate the quest.  "As with gladness men of old", we sing in a well known epiphany hymn.  The travellers were glad of the constancy of the star guiding them. Still there in spite of the setbacks.  They make it to Bethlehem a small town thought to be the birth place of king David; perhaps a reference to Micah 5:2-5 although the circumstance of that was specifically the Assyrian invasion, not David or Jesus.  Here they find Mary a young mother and a child. What they saw and how it affected them can only be imagined , they knelt and worshipped.

After their encounter with the holy family we are told nothing except that they went back a different way.  As changed people?

In T.S Eliot's poem Journey of the Magi [3] an elderly magus reflects:

"Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?

  We returned to our places... but are no longer at ease here.

  With an alien people clutching their gods."

 

We are encouraged to "Seek the Lord while he may be found" (Isaiah 55:6). Sound advice. It has to be acknowledged that like the Magi  there is a risk that our preconceptions will derail our efforts or lead us up blind alleys. Nevertheless we should, like them  find the honesty and integrity to persevere and not give up or be lazily content with the world according to me-myself. 

 

Epiphany, however, is much more than a story about Gentiles, or us, reaching toward God. The deeper revelation of the Christmas story is that Jesus  came to Earth; our world but more emphatically His.  It is He who has come a very long and arduous way to seek us.  When He finds us we will be changed beyond any expectation.

 

Mark Taylor.  Reader

 

[1] Matthew often presents a dualist view of the cosmic order, or perhaps of our psychological state:  good versus evil, angels versus demons, judgement with heaven and hell, sheep and goats, wise and foolish virgins.  These ideas were latecomers to Judaism, anathema to the Sadducees, but of interest to the Pharisees. These concepts are all central to Zoroastrianism the principle religion of ancient Persia.  Perhaps the wise men cross-reference to Cyrus and Darius, enlightened Persian leaders highly regarded in the prophetic writings, who released the Israelites from exile and supported the return of temple worship to Jerusalem in the 6th century BC. The enduring story of the Magi has held the imagination of Christians over the centuries, but its origins are lost in the cultural turmoil of the first centuries AD and BC.

 

[2] Contrary to commonly-held views, science cannot prove a truth.  The result of an experiment might be negative and clearly refute the possibility that the idea being tested is correct.  If it is positive, the hypothesis is supported as being reasonable, but there remains a gap between reason(human) and truth (absolute).

 

[3] T.S.Eliot Collected Poems 1909-1962. Faber & Faber